For me, the siren is one of the most interesting of all the sailor mythologies. Sirens are the beautiful, ethereal women (or entities) who lure sailors to their deaths on jagged rocks and cliffs. They have been portrayed in a wide range of media, from video games to television series. In Matthew Butler-Hart’s film, The Isle (2019), sirens play a central role. However, unlike many previous sea tales, we get a closer look at the sirens themselves. Unfortunately, their backstories don’t offer as much value as they should.
The Isle is about three shipwrecked sailors who wake up on a beach. None of the three can remember exactly how they got there, though vague memories of a terrible crash haunt them. The trio soon meets one of just a few island residents who lingers nearby. The man promises to help them return to the mainland, but he seems in no rush to make good on his word. Soon after, the sailors encounter the women of the island, who act erratically and are often kept at bay by their respective male family members. Soon, the unofficial leader of the trio, Oliver (Alex Hassell), finds himself and his crewmates in a perilous position. He must piece together the events leading up to the shipwreck and unravel the mysteries hidden by the people of the isle.
One can easily imagine what brought the men to the island and killed the majority of the ship’s crew, but the story’s uncertainties lie in the lives and secrets of the locals. Their behavior is bizarre, to the point that the sailors become desperate to escape their surroundings. However, as the secrets are revealed in the final act, the narrative loses most of its power.
Nonetheless, Matthew Butler-Hart directs his characters with near-perfect precision. No one performance stands out as exemplary, since they all work so well as a collective whole. Even if the cast did have any weak points, the cinematography and spooky atmosphere more than make up for it. The film seamlessly combines the age-old tales of sirens with the picturesque, foggy shores of a land lost somewhere in the British isles.
On paper, The Isle should be the perfect film for viewers like me. As a fan of atmospheric horror, Celtic folklore, and old-school sea tales, I thought I would love it. And at first, I really did. The pacing is a little slow, but it delivers on every other front. It is gorgeous to watch and creates an intriguing atmosphere. Unfortunately, it depends on ill-conceived backstories during the second act, along with less-than-stellar special effects.
Naturally, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I won’t go too much into the backstories of the islanders. However, The Isle isn’t really a story-driven film; at least, not entirely. It creates a certain “vibe” that is difficult to duplicate, which is usually a recipe for a truly great horror film. The atmosphere is 90% of what I look for in a film, horror or otherwise, but the genre lends itself to environments that set a very specific tone and mood. In this respect, The Isle hits the mark perfectly.
The characters in The Isle find themselves in a seemingly inescapable situation, surrounded by strange people and dark omens. Moments of true horror are few and far between (outside of a few jump scares). That said, the entire film builds a sense of beautiful dread through its visuals. The camera lingers on grey, wind-swept shores, mysterious forests, and jagged cliff edges. For this, I tip my hat to the cinematographer, Pete Wallington. He does everything to make The Isle a visual masterpiece and much more than a generic horror film.
In short, I certainly can’t advise against watching The Isle (2019). It scratches certain itches that few other films can. However, you might find the story a little lackluster once the characters reveal all of their respective secrets. Nonetheless, The Isle manages to do a lot with very little, making it a contender for one of the best indie horrors of 2019.
The Isle (2019) Movie Rating: ★★★½ out of 5
If you’d like to watch The Isle (2019), it is currently available to rent or purchase via Amazon. It is also available to stream on Tubi and Vudu. For more film reviews like this one, be sure to check out the Philosophy in Film homepage!
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